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12 December 2005

No sex, no drugs: wooing the Saffys

By William Higham

James is watching his favourite rock band. Dressed in black, he dances aggressively, his lip and eyebrow pierced, tattoo on his forearm. He might seem a typical teenager, but his Gothic exterior conceals a different attitude. It is Sunday afternoon, the venue is alcohol-free, and both he and the band he is watching are Christians. This is the world of the Saffys.

Saffys are a growing segment of British youth. They embrace traditional values and aspire to adult behaviour. They defy the notion that young people are “naturally” left of centre and into “youth” issues. Their rise is good news for David Cameron. We discovered the demographic while conducting a study of parenting. Finding that many of today’s parents are still hedonistic, unmarried and/or “cool”, we asked how today’s teens might react. Reruns of Absolutely Fabulous gave us the answer in Saffy, the daughter. The best way for teens to shock their parents is to “go straight”: to be studious, shun drugs, perhaps turn to religion. One can imagine the shame her mother felt when Frances Bean Cobain (daughter of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love) uttered these words to Teen Vogue:

“I don’t like to look sloppy. I’m a girly girl. I prefer when Mum is more ‘classy starlet’. I don’t really like her hard-metal stuff, or when she doesn’t brush her hair.”

The trend is not just rebellion-driven. In the shift away from authoritarian parents or teachers, many young people grew up in a form of moral vacuum. Being able to think or do anything you like can be liberating, but it may also be disorientating. One response is to seek rules and a conventional moral framework. This is what Saffys are doing.

According to Department of Health figures from February, the proportion of teens admitting to taking drugs had fallen from 12 to 10 per cent in the past year.

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This summer, Channel 4 and the magazine publishers Emap reran a 1995 poll of 15- to 24-year-olds to see how attitudes had changed. In ten years, the proportion who consider “having fun” to be the most important thing in life had fallen by 14 per cent and those who often go out “intending to get drunk” by 9 per cent.

Attitudes to morality and religion also seem to be changing. In a More magazine survey (average age 21), 68 per cent said they would prefer to be married before they had a child and 80 per cent would want to give up work to look after their children. Some 96 per cent were “certain” they would be faithful to their husbands and more than 65 per cent considered divorce to be too easy. There appears to be a renewed interest – if not yet adherence to – organised religion. Half of all pupils currently studying GCSEs are taking religious education. RE had the second-highest rise of any exam subject last year, and the growing numbers of faith schools will encourage the trend.

Saffys’ political views may shock those on the left who count on the young for support. This is not a politically correct generation. The government’s most recent Social Attitudes study of British youth found that only 31 per cent of 18-34s believe more money should be spent on welfare benefits compared with 48 per cent in 1987. Those willing to see money “redistributed to the less well-off” fell from 50 per cent in 1987 to 34 per cent. More than 50 per cent of the 15-24s questioned want tougher immigration laws, the introduction of identity cards, and the death penalty.

With attitudes like this, Saffys are harking back to a pre-1960s Britain. They will be looking for traditionalist policies. They may even end up leading David Cameron to the right.

William Higham is founder of the trend analysts Next Big Thing

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